Iconic Ganges River Dolphin: Freshwater Species of the Week


1894 drawing of a Ganges river dolphin
An 1894 Royal Natural History drawing of a Ganges river dolphin. Via Wikimedia Commons

Conservation India reports that an endangered Ganges river dolphin (or Gangetic dolphin, Platanista gangetica gangetica), was killed by villagers in Assam this week. A fishmonger was seen selling the marine mammal’s meat at a roadside market in Lezai-Kalakhowa.

freshwater species of the weekThe Ganges river dolphin is the national aquatic animal of India. It lives in the freshwater of the Ganges and Brahmpautra Rivers in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Conservation India warned, “Though legally the species enjoys protection status equal to that of a tiger, poor awareness, construction of dams that restrict their movement, hunting for food etc. are driving them to extinction.”

Ganges river dolphins are one of two subspecies that make up the South Asian river dolphin (Platanista gangetica). The other subspecies, Platanista gangetica minor, is called the Indus river dolphin and makes its home in the Indus River in Pakistan. The two groups were considered separate species until the late 1990s, when they were reclassified as subspecies.

Both dolphins are critically endangered. Like a number of other river dolphins around the world, they have long, pointed noses and prominent teeth. They have brownish, stocky bodies. The South Asian river dolphins are nearly blind, and navigate and find prey through echolocation.

Unlike all other cetaceans, the South Asian river dolphins primarily swim on their sides.

According to Conservation India, wildlife officials are investigating the recent illegal killing of the Ganges dolphin. Sanctuaries have been set up in the river to protect some habitat for the animal, although many challenges remain, including entanglement in fishing nets, pollution, overfishing of the dolphins’ prey, dams that restrict movements, and poaching.

The animals are occasionally consumed for meat or made into aphrodisiacs, and are used for fish bait.

The dolphins are mentioned in sacred Hindu texts, a fact that conservationists in India sometimes tout to the public.

Related: Irrawaddy river dolphins.

Hat tip to Krithi Karanth, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who does conservation biology in India.


Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.


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